Monday, July 11

Happy 7th Anniversary; Sorry I Ruined Your Life.

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INTRO.

I don’t believe in doomed fate, negative karma or bad luck. But if I did, I would believe that I suffer from it on a level slightly above annoyance and just below real danger.

Unfortunately for the Missus, this was the contract she unknowingly signed into when she married me. It matters not if she were a lucky person before we met; any positive vibes she had sent out into the world in the hopes of some sort of future karmic retribution became null and void when she began sleeping with me. She knows this (and has, to the best of my knowledge, accepted it the best she can), but it doesn’t make me any less empathetic for her plight when it comes around to ruin her weekend.

Our 7th wedding anniversary was last week, and to celebrate, we bought each other tattoos. Now, the Missus and I aren’t made of money by any means (my shoes have been crudely fashioned out of soda cans), but the last couple months have been surprisingly good to us. We received a perfect storm of bonus paychecks, overtime hours (more on that another time), royalties, ad money, generous gifts and various other revenue that put us in a position to pay some stuff off and still spend a little on ourselves in the process. Considering that I just had to put over $1000 into my car a couple months ago, the money came at a very good time, and we made the plan to buy the tattoos without any sort of buyer’s remorse. So rarely does an opportunity like this present itself, and for good reason.

I’ve discussed this briefly in the past, but each time we find ourselves with extra money in the bank, one of our cars will break down. I’m serious. It has happened literally every single time over the span of the last decade, and it’s always (always) directly proportionate to how much money we had to begin with. I am not fiscally allowed to get ahead, but if it’s any consolation, the cars only seem to break down when we have the money with which to afford repairs. I’m Even Steven, and it’s a tremendous pain in the ass.

The pattern is as follows:

Step One: Acknowledgement Of Extra Revenue.
“Hey, I noticed that we’re going to be getting an extra grand this month, so let’s put it towards one of the many random bills we’ve been trying to take care of.”

Step Two: Fiscal Responsibility.
“Done. My laser eye surgery is officially paid for. Take that, shoddy genetics!”

Step Three: The Wrinkled Hand Of Fate.
“My car crashed into an Indian restaurant and exploded. Cancel paying that bill.”

Step Four: Surplus Negated.
“The car repair was $1000, the Indian restaurant is suing and the people at the laser eye place are threatening to reverse the surgery somehow.”

I know this sounds like some nonsensical literary device, but it has happened at least ten times to me in this exact (mechanical, not literal) fashion, without fail. Don’t believe me? Ask my wife.

ACT I.

As we drove downtown in Celia’s Mini, I took note of how humid it was outside, and began calculating just how close we could park to the tattoo parlor to avoid the tropical conditions. I also took note that the cost of our tattoos combined would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $1200, and silently hoped that fate would pass us by this once. I honestly felt that if we could spend the money as fast as possible, the transaction could slip through the Universe without being detected and punished by an ironic God I don’t even believe in. This is what it has come to, and I blame my Catholic upbringing.

As we idled at a stop sign, I looked at the Mini’s dashboard.

“Honey, is your temperature gauge always like that?”

I was asking the question passively because I already knew the answer. Her gauge was buried in the red and the warning light was on; the Mini was beginning to overheat.

“Umm, I don’t know,” she said, not really paying attention.

“I’ll check the manual,” I said. Again, I already knew this was a problem.

Celia has probably never owned a car that overheated, but I have owned approximately three that all but burst into flames on a monthly basis (an ’86 Somerset, a ’93 Tempo and a ’98 Escort, to be specific). I don’t know a lot about cars, but I know that when they begin to overheat, your journey is over. That car needs to be turned off immediately to avoid permanent (and potentially fiery) damage. I again attempted to subtly explain to her the severity of the situation. After all, this was her dream car, and I knew she didn’t want anything irreversible to happen to it.

“Turn the air conditioner off,” I bargained. “If that doesn’t work, we’re going to have to pull over.”

The Missus was concerned, yet agitated with my increasingly demanding requests. “Well, what am I supposed to do? Worry about it? Let’s just get it downtown first.”

“Well, yeah. You are supposed to worry about it, honey.” Nonetheless, we turned off the air and the temperature gauge subsided for the time being.

As we pulled up to the downtown parking garage, my eyes were still fixated on the gauge. Never in my life have I seen an overheated car go back to normal (and stay back to normal) by simply turning off the air conditioning. It’s a temporary fix at best, and I knew that the idling, stop-and-start nature of the parking garage was going to tell me what I needed to know about how our afternoon was going to unfold. Sure enough, the gauge was back to the red in seconds, and so was my anxiety.

“Honey? We need to park this car.”

“I KNOW. Gawd, shut up!”

As we circled upward into the garage, level after level was filled to capacity. It was also at this time that the Mini started smoking. At this point, the Missus finally realized the magnitude of the situation.

“No!” she yelled, smacking her palms into the steering wheel. “I need to park!”

I concurred, but silently. Smoke continued to pour out from under the hood, as we waved away cars and pedestrians. Then the grinding began; the awful sound of metal-on-metal that signifies beyond a shadow of a doubt that your car is about to die and stay dead. The Missus had tears in her eyes as we finally rolled into a parking space near the roof of the ramp, antifreeze-flavored smoke billowing out of every nook and vent.

I didn’t really know what to do, so I instinctively instructed her to pop the hood. The emerging steam nearly stripped every follicle from my face and hands, and I could see that the coolant reservoir was not only still full, but boiling from the intense heat. Something was seriously wrong.

“Honey? Your car definitely overheated, but I think it was because something else happened. Like, I think you might have blown something.”

Head gasket? Cooling fan? These were not going to be cheap fixes. What worried the Missus, however, was the theory that she had blown her engine. This would be unfixable, and her car would be done forever. We closed the hood, collected ourselves and made our way onto the street, where we decided to stop thinking about the car for a few hours while we went to the tattoo place and grabbed dinner.

I allowed myself the last word. “I don’t know what’s wrong with that car, but we’re certainly not driving it home.”

ACT II.

The consultation at the tattoo place went great; Celia was on the verge of getting one of the craziest ink jobs I had ever seen. However, as we sat at Tutto Pasta and watched State Street passerby enjoy their afternoon, our focus returned to the (in all likelihood) stalled Mini still trapped in the parking garage. We had never been in a situation like this before.

“Can a tow truck even fit in a ramp like that?”

“They must; they tow cars without permits and stuff, right?”

We finally got a hold of a local towing company, who suggested we put the car in neutral and coast/push it out of the garage with the engine off. This seemed to me like a recipe for disaster, so we both agreed that we should just turn the car on and wing it down the ramp as quickly as we could. Admittedly, this was a far more dangerous plan of action. The car seemed briefly okay when we turned it on, and as we made our way down the ramp, we knew we were on borrowed time, but it looked like things would be okay. Just get it out of the garage and onto the back of the waiting tow truck on the street.

I’ve never diffused a bomb before, but I’ve seen how it’s played out in action movies, and it looks pretty tense. Idling at the Pay Station was as nerve-wracking as anything that’s happened to me this year, as we slowly watched the temperature gauge needle creep back up to the red while we waited for our receipt (and for the robotic gate to open). Without a second to spare, we bounced the (again smoking) Mini onto the street, where Jerry at Road Ranger Towing was waiting to save the day.

There was road construction all over the downtown area, so we created a bit of a traffic fiasco as the Mini was locked and loaded. As we stood in the blistering heat and watched Jerry do his job, I looked over to the (understandably miserable) Missus and asked a question I had only then thought of.

“How are we getting home?”

I have never “rode bitch” in a tow truck before, but here I was, on the eve of my 7th wedding anniversary, doing just that, flanked by my livid wife and extremely boisterous tow truck operator. Jerry was giving us a lift to the nearest Mini dealership, where I figured he would hit us with a massive bill and leave whatever was left of our emaciated husks for the guys at the Repair Shop to scavenge. As Jerry gave us the scenic tour of downtown Madison, we got a crash-course in the towing business, including such gems as:

1. The physical locations of his primary rivals within the city of Madison.
2. Why mom & pop car dealerships can’t survive anymore (“They’re too nice for their own good”).
3. His friend, a semi-retired plumber, who now works part-time at Farm & Fleet, and sometimes calls in on his days off just to talk to people because he’s lonely.
4. How, even after 20 years, he still loves the business. He had this revelation at the Texas Roadhouse with his wife.

Jerry was a red-blooded American and a genuinely good guy, but we were less than talkative considering how heavily our current predicament was weighing on our minds. When he dropped us (and the car) off at the Mini dealership, he charged us a reasonable $80 and disappeared as quickly as he arrived. We found the Repair Shop closed, so we filled out a service request and slipped it into their dropbox. Just then, I was hit with a question I had asked myself just an hour earlier.

“Seriously, how are we getting home?”

Every single person I knew in the Madison area that I felt comfortable bumming a ride off of seemed to be out of town for the day. At this point, we were sweaty, exhausted and finished with this fiasco of a day, so the Missus called a cab and we sat on the concrete steps of the dealership until she rolled up. It wasn’t until I told her where we were headed that I realized just how far from home I really was.

The cab driver actually shut her meter off at $40 because she “felt bad for us.” It would have been closer to $50, but after hearing about what happened to the Mini (and what it might cost us), she didn’t want to make our day any worse. We thanked her and again sat in silence, the Missus surely contemplating the potentially terminal condition of her beloved Mini. I attempted to lighten up the situation.

“Hey, things could be worse, right? We could be in the back of an ambulance. Or we could have been in an accident. It’s just a little money; we’ll be okay.”

No response.

ACT III.

The next day, we received a phone call from Mini of Madison. You know it’s going to be a bad transaction when the mechanic opens the conversation with the line “This is not going to be a cheap repair.” As it turned out, the Mini’s cooling fan died, which caused everything to get smoky and steamy. And considering that we just put $1000 into my ’02 Sable, I couldn’t even imagine what the Mini folks thought of as an un-cheap repair.

“It’s going to be $700.”

Shit, you would have thought we won the lottery. “Yes! Fantastic! Fix it!” the Missus practically shouted into the phone. I bet the mechanic was extremely confused at this reaction, but considering the current threshold of our tolerance for bad news, a $700 might as well have been a Carnival Cruise.

Later that night, the Missus and I were lying in bed, recalling the events of the weekend.

“You know,” she said, “I knew that cooling fan was beginning to die on me.”
“Really?” I said. “How so?”
“Well, for the last couple of months, it’s been doing this thing where it kept running after I shut the car off. It started draining the battery and stuff, so I knew that it would eventually give out on me.”

My lips became the thinnest of lines.

“Is that right?” I said through gritted teeth. “So, how had you been shutting the cooling fan off when it would keep running all those times?”

“You know that rubber mallet I keep in the trunk? I’d just bang on the fan with the mallet until it shut off. In a way, I’m glad it just up and broke, because I was sick of doing that all the time.”

I could have said a lot of things at that moment. Most of them containing vivid expletives and wild gesturing with my hands. I could have explained to her that the entire weekend could have been prevented had we handled the situation immediately. I could have explained to her how dangerous driving the car that way was. I could have explained to her that banging a fan with a mallet was no way to handle a $28,000 car (or anything).

Then I thought about the month as a whole; how nothing I could have said or done would have prevented her car from breaking down, merely because we had the extra money with which to pay it. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault. It was Fate’s fault, and I was accepting that. I’ll probably never get ahead, but it seems that I never have to fall behind, either. At least not for too long. Furthermore, as long as Celia was by my side, there was nothing I couldn't handle.

“Happy Anniversary,” I said. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Comments:
It sounds like the tattoo addiction has hit ya'll at full force...
 
Indeed it has. The Missus already had 6-7 before this last one, so she's way ahead of me. I'll catch up, though.
 
Ooooh. Yeah. This happens to me too. The latest: paying off my credit card, and a week later having our A/C finally quite for good. Needed a new air handler and compressor, to the tune of $3,400. There's no way around it - living in central Florida without central air is not doable. So I paid. Made me want to cry, handing that card over, but we just didn't have the means to pay that in cash. Every time we're a little ahead, a car breaks or an appliance craps out, and whatever gains we've made are lost. Welcome to adulthood. And the prospect of being chased to the grave by the specter of soul-crushing debt. But happy anniversary!! Best wishes for many, many more.
 
It's the worst. I have no idea what I'd do with myself if I had complete financial freedom. My head may explode.
 
I write the check for my last car payment this month. I fully expect my car to explode the nanosecond that check clears.
 

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